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Offering Physics Lab Courses Online: Status, Methods, Pros, Cons

  1. Jun 4, 2010 #1
    Should undergraduate physics lab courses be available in an online ("Web-only") format? How? What are the Pros? Cons? Please discuss.

    If you teach physics, please also answer a very brief (7 questions, 5 minutes) research survey on your institution's use of online content for physics. The survey is accessible at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/L338JRG" [Broken].


    - Ann R.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 7, 2010 #2

    Andy Resnick

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    How do you propose labs be taught without lab equipment?
  4. Jun 7, 2010 #3
    I have read in a magazine that simulations and such teach the subject at worst as well as real life labs. According to it the only real reason to have labs rather than other types of learning is that it teaches the basics of metrology.
  5. Jun 7, 2010 #4

    Andy Resnick

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    I am totally opposed to using simulations instead of real experiments. Simulation-based replacement of experiment is anathema to scientific reasoning and provides a false sense of understanding.

  6. Jun 7, 2010 #5
    I took an online lab course in biophysics once. It was a third year undergrad course, designed to prepare people for medicine and medical biophysics. It was a terrible experience and I would not recommend it to anyone on earth.
  7. Jun 8, 2010 #6
    Andy -

    I am likewise opposed to substituting simulations for 'hands-on' experiments. The number one reason students like lab courses is that it allows them to see how the theory they learn in lecture applies in the 'real world'. If an online lab is reduced to a collection of simulations, then students will only see how the theory they learn in lecture relates to some other theory they see in a model. Simulations are great tools for gaining an intuitive sense of how parameters affect outcome, but they can never replace lab experience.

    The most common appraoches to offering physics labs online are (based on results of the survey to date):

    1. Physics labs and physics courses are not offered at all online.

    2. Lecture is offered online, but labs are offered separately on campus with traditional equipment.

    3. Simulations are used in an online lab course, instead of lab experiments.

    4. Student purchase of an equipment kit ($100 to $200) to perform experiments offsite/at home.

    5. Students procure readily-available materials and perform experiments at home.

    6. Combination of methods listed.

    7. Other.

    One novel "other" technique used at several institutions is the use of video analysis and measurement from a pre-recorded video of a physical experiment run "live". This technique is especially suited to analysis of two-dimensional projectile motion and simple harmonic oscillators.

    This is what I have found so far.
  8. Jun 12, 2010 #7
    UPDATE on status of the surveys:

    Phase I Survey is complete. 325 accredited degree-granting institutions offering undergraduate physics courses were surveyed. The survey included 140 4-year universities/colleges and 185 2-year/community colleges, spanning 48 states in the US. Out of the 325 institutions offering undergraduate physics courses that were surveyed, 23 (7.1%) offered at least one undergraduate physics course entirely online, and only 7 (2.2%) offered a lab course or lab portion of an undergraduate physics course online (astronomy, geology, and/or meteorology courses were excluded from consideration in the survey). The percent of institutions offering online undergraduate physics courses was the same for both the 4-yr and for the 2-yr institutions.

    The majority of the online physics courses offered were described as either ‘conceptual’, survey, or for education majors, although several offered General (non-calculus) Physics I and II online, with either a stand-alone online lab course, or an online lab portion of the online physics course.

    PHASE II Survey: While the Phase I Survey addressed the current status of online physics education, the Phase II Survey focusses on methodologies and approaches for delivery of lab course content, in institutions offering online physics courses.

    So far, 30 institutions offering online undergraduate physics courses have responded, with 20 of those also offering either online physics labs or an online lab component to the physics course. Of those institutions that offer physics classes online, the most common approaches to laboratory subject matter delivery (results to date) are 1) use of computer simulations (47%), 2) offering physics lecture online with all lab courses/components on-campus only (40%), 3) purchase of a materials kit to perform experiments at home (27%), 4) student procurement of readily-available materials to perform experiments at home (27%), 5) use of video analysis of student-produced or instructor-supplied videos of motion/experiments (7%), 6) rental/borrowing of school equipment (7%), and computer remote-controll of experiement via Internet (3%). Note the numbers add to more than 100% because three fifths of the colleges using simulations and all those using video analysis or remote control reported using these tools in conjunction with "hands-on" student experiments. In all, only 6 of the 30 institutions (20%) reported using only simulations for their online lab component, with the rest having no online lab component, or requiring some combination of techniques for student experimentation.


    Of those institutions using simulations for online lab applications, the most commonly used resources are PhET simulations (developed at Colorado at Boulder) and PhysLets (developed at Davidson College, NC). Those using video analysis are using either Logger Pro (commercially available product by Vernier) or Tracker (openware produced at Cabrillo College). It is telling that neither Colorado-Boulder, nor Davidson College, nor Cabrillo College, nor UWashington (home of the Physics Education Research [PER] Group) offer any physics courses or labs online.

    More results to follow, but if your institution offers at least one physics course online, please participate in the survey if you haven’t already done so. Also, please add your thoughts and discussion to the above.
  9. Mar 11, 2012 #8
    This important topic has no simple answer. The proper use of various learning tools, including hands-on labs, remote labs, lab kits, videos, and simulations, depends on the learner.

    As a scientist, I believe that those who plan to major in science and closely related fields should have as much quality true lab experience as reasonable. I wish to emphasize the word "quality." Bad hands-on labs exist everywhere and should be avoided.

    For the rest of the world, and it's the majority by far, such experiences range from nice-to-have to depressing. Let's assume that we're discussing labs for non-majors because alternatives for majors should be minimal.

    Next, consider your lab goals. If they're to improve understanding of specific science concepts, then you should use various visualization tools such as videos and simulations. If they're to improve lab technique, then you've just contradicted the assumption above that we're talking about non-science majors who likely will never use this equipment in their post-graduate lives.

    Science labs take time and money, lots of both. If you can provide a good learning experience in another way, do so. So, what do science labs do for those who are not majors and those in grades K-12? They train students in scientific thinking skills. They help considerably in understanding the nature of science. They acquaint students with the difficulties associated with empirical work, the messy, complex, and ambiguous nature of the data.

    These are worthy goals.

    They are not forwarded by simulations, only by real-world experimentation.

    You can find several means to provide real-world experimentation.

    1. Traditional hands-on labs done on school premises.
    2. Lab kits that cost typically $150-250 apiece.
    3. "Kitchen" labs that use readily available, low-cost materials.
    4. Remote labs that use "robotics" to run experiments.
    5. Prerecorded real experiments with interactive data collection.

    Only the fifth method delivers a true science investigation experience across all disciplines at a modest cost, typically around $30 for a full course. Search "prerecorded real experiments" to find all options here.
  10. Mar 11, 2012 #9
    The cost of 'kit' approaches to online science lab courses has dropped significantly. For physics, in particular, there are several breakthroughs in consumer electronics that make high-end measurement equipment available at reasonable costs.

    1. Computer sound cards sample at 44.1 KHz, making the sound recording capability of any at-home learner's computer as precise a measurement tool as most on-campus photogate timing systems.

    2. Most student cell phones now include video capability of high enough resolution to allow the students themselves to take video footage to analyze with Tracker or Logger Pro.

    3. Several freeware/openware software packages are readily available for sound recording and analysis. These can be used to perform Fourier analysis of the resonant harmonics of tubes that are open or closed, showing the differences in the spectra and allowing measurement of the speed of sound from the length of the tube.

    4. Open source software (and cell phones) also are available for timing to 0.01 second precision, obviating the need for the purchase of separate stop watches.

    5. Inexpensive lenses, mag lights, cheap (less than $3) laser pointers, and commercial metallic meshes allow for robust experiments in optics.

    6. Student-grade multi-meters adequate for introductory circuit analysis may be purchased for $10 to $12.

    The use of such techniques for physical "hands-on" experimentation at home can free up time for simulations to be used for what simulations do best: reinforcing concepts.

    Simulations can also be used for "trial runs" for the same experiments that will be carried out physically. This could help students gain a sense of scale, gain practice and confidence with computations, and explore the effects of small variations (for error analyses) on the experimental outcomes. It can also allow students to 'dry run' experiments they design themselves, possibly permitting more student involvement in the experimental design phase.
  11. Mar 11, 2012 #10
    What you say is quite accurate except for the use of simulations. Why spend that time?

    How can you be certain that these "kit" experiments actually are run? Methods there are, but they smack of extreme control.
  12. Mar 12, 2012 #11
    I can be sure that the kit experiments are actually run because I have used them in both online and face-to-face lab class settings. They work. The only limit to the quality of the online labs is our creativity, as instructors.

    Simulations can provide great gains in conceptual understanding. That is why I have used them and will continue to use them in a classroom setting. By embedding them in the homework assignments, I can also be sure that students are using them, and I can assess the conclusions they are drawing from them. I don't believe the simulations can or should replace physical experiments in the lab, and other research (and the reports of the National Academies of Science, Health, and Engineering) bears this out.
  13. Mar 12, 2012 #12

    It has been almost two years since my original post requesting dialogue on the topic of presenting rigorous science labs in an online format, and the topic has recently leapt back from the grave. It is time for an update on what has happened since this thread began:

    1. I have completed four surveys on the status and methods of online physics laboratory learning in the US (The surveys emphasize physics because this is my background and interest). Survey results include:

    a. 398 US two-and four-year degree granting institutions offering undergraduate introductory physics courses were polled to find the availability of similar introductory courses and labs in online formats. Results indicate that as of Spring, 2010, 9.5% (+/- 2.9%, p = 0.05) offer at least one similar introductory-level undergraduate physics undergraduate course in an online format, with slightly fewer than half (3.8 +/- 1.9 %, p = 0.05) offering the corresponding introductory physics lab (or lab portion of an integrated undergraduate physics course) in an online format. Data show no statistically significant difference in online availability of courses or labs between two- and four-year institutions.

    b. A survey of institutions offering online physics courses in a completely online format (also 2010) identified five approaches to online physics laboratories. These included the use of virtual labs (for purposes of this survey, "virtual" refers to a computer-generated representation of the lab equipment, which the students must manipulate, or the computer-based simulation of physical phenomena); remote labs (student operation of robotically-controlled equipment and acquisition of data in near-real time for analysis); off-site hands-on experimentation (either through borrowed/rented college equipment, use of readily-available household items, use of an equipment "kit" (either commercially-procured or purchased from the institution); video analysis (student analysis of real data using either Tracker (publicly available, educational commons license) or Logger Pro (commercial software product), or analysis of instructor-provided video of real experiments and corresponding measurement devises); or on-campus experimentation. The most common approach to online labs, among those institutions offering online physics courses, was to provide no online content at all (53 +/- 12 %, p = 0.05). Thus, for the vast majority of online physics students, the lab experience is identical to the lab experience of their traditional-classroom peers, with all labs on-campus, using the same techniques and equipment.

    c. Most institutions used a combination of these techniques, both on- and off-campus. Almost all approaches to online physics courses and labs involved some hands-on, direct student experimentation with real equipment and student-generated data. In the combined population for Surveys I and II (455 total non-duplicative responses), only 4 institutions were identified as offering a fully-online introductory physics lab consisting of a 'simulations only' approach.

    d. For the ten institutions identified in Survey II as offering a "kit" approach to online introductory physics labs, the average equipment cost to the student was $130. These institutions typically did not charge for lab manuals/handouts, but made the lab guidelines available free-of-charge to students online. Thus, total text-and-materials costs for the online kit labs was less than the cost of a typical undergraduate physics textbook, with no additional "lab fees" charged, and no capital expenses for the institution.

    e. A third survey was completed February 2012 to assess the change in the availability of online introductory physics courses and labs. This time, 311 accredited, degree-granting two-year colleges were surveyed, and care was taken to differentiate between the availability of physics labs and courses at the conceptual, algebra/trig, and calculus-based levels. The results showed a small but statistically significant increase in the availability of online physics courses and laboratory classes, with 34 (11% ± 3.5%, to the 95% confidence level) reporting at least one available section of introductory physics offered online and 21 (6.8% ± 2.8%, to the 95% confidence level) offering at least one section of an introductory physics laboratory course in a fully online format. Even with this increase, the results still demonstrate physics significantly lagging all other disciplines reported in the availability of online educational opportunities.

    f. Finally, a fourth survey was completed in February 2012 of 105 accredited US institutions providing complete degree programs fully online (approximate split 60/40 public/private institutions). Even though more than half of these institutions offered full degrees in business and in health fields, and more than a fifth of them offered full bachelor degree programs completely online in communications, criminal justice, education, information technology, psychology, and sociology, not one offered a full four-year degree program completely online in engineering, physics, or chemistry (Representation of biological sciences was limited to degree programs in horticulture, agricultural sciences, fisheries and wildlife sciences, microbiology, and "turf grass science").

    In all of these cases, the availability of quality online lab programs limits access to fully-online degree programs.

    (Note: The first two surveys were reported at the Winter Meeting of the Ameriucan Association of Physics Teachers, Jacksonville, FL, 2011. The third survey has been accepted for the Proceedings of the Chesapeake Section of the AAPT, Spring 2012 Meeting. The fourth survey will be included as part of a larger presentation to the Fifth Annual Student Success Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference, April 2012.)

    2. I have put together my equipment "wish list" for a kit approach, to allow introductory physics students to perform experiments commensurate with the scope and sequence of an algebra/trig-based introductory physics lab. Costs range from about $70 for a basic kit to cover specific experiments in a first-semester course, to $270 for a kit to allow broad, open-ended exploration of multiple phenomena in a full two-semester sequence.

    3. I have "field tested" some of the experiments in in-class and online environments. As a result, a new method was developed for more rapidly and efficiently 'vetting' labs for online use.

    4. Finally, I have identified as a "critical need" for lab improvement (both online and on-campus) the development of an objective research-based measurement standard for assessing the value of competing laboratory approaches. In the physics community, we have years of data against reliable standards for measuring gains in conceptual understanding (e.g., Force Concept Inventory, Mechanics Baseline Tests, etc.). However, conceptual gains is only one (and not even the most important one) of the goals for science lab programs. There are also some somewhat-widely accepted assessments available for student attitudes. However, there are no standards for gains in understanding of the scientific method, in student ability for experimental design, in broad "scientific thinking", in student motivation to experiment beyond course requirements, or for gains in general understanding of the ambiguities/errors involved in scientific exploration. Such assessment tools are a necessary "next step" for research-based improvement of lab programs. Without such assessments, there is no research-based reason to differentiate between simulations and "real" experimentation, or to argue against the elimination of lab programs, altogether.
  14. Mar 12, 2012 #13

    Andy Resnick

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    Thanks for the post- there's a ton of information I need to digest. Is this part of a published study?
  15. Mar 12, 2012 #14
    Andy -

    It is a combination of bits and pieces from three different presentations, only one of which publishes proceedings. I can send you a (long, boring, needs more editing) pre-print offline, if you would like.
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